Skip to main content

Apple's new MacBook: How does its Retina display compare to other Macs?

The new MacBook recently revealed at Apple's Spring Forward event hits stores on April 10th. It's the second MacBook product to feature what Apple calls a "Retina display," joining the Retina MacBook Pro which first appeared in 2012. What does Retina display mean, and how does the new MacBook's Retina display compared to existing Macs?

"Retina" Display

Retina display is a marketing term Apple came up with, originally to describe the display on the iPhone 4. It has no intrinsic medical or technical meaning, but Apple uses "Retina display," "Retina HD Display" and, in the case of the iMac, "Retina 5K Display" to describe the high-res displays on many of its iPhones, iPads, iPod touches and Macs.

What all of these devices have in common is higher-resolution displays than their counterparts. Apple claims that on Retina displays, people with average vision can't make out the individual pixels — each illuminated square on the screen. The number of pixels per inch (PPI) on Retina displays — the pixel density — is much higher than on other displays.

As a result, images on Retina displays look sharper, text looks less jaggy, and stuff is easier to read and easier to look at. It enables Apple and app developers to make user interfaces with finer levels of detail, and it helps you see details you couldn't easily see before.

The iPhone 4 was the first iPhone to sport a Retina display. Retina displays have since been added to the iPad, iPad mini, and iPod touch. The new Apple Watch has a Retina display. Apple continues to ratchet up Retina display quality: The iPhone 4, 5, and 6 all have 326 PPI displays; the iPhone 6 Plus has a 401 PPI display; the Apple Watch will sport 290 or 302 PPI displays depending on whether you pick the 38 or 42 mm version.

iOS devices and watches aren't the only ones to get the Retina display treatment. Apple began offering MacBook Pros with Retina displays beginning in 2012.

The actual pixel density of the MacBook Pro with Retina display is lower than the iPhone, because the typical viewing distance is much further away. You usually look at your phone from about 10-12 inches (25-30 centimeters) from your face. You typically look at a computer screen from closer to two feet (61 cm).

Mac Retina displays compared

The Retina MacBook Pro comes in 13 and 15-inch sizes. Both of them have similar pixel density: 227 and 220 pixels per inch, respectively. The 13-inch screen has an actual resolution of 2560 x 1600, while the 15-inch screen's physical resolution is 2880 x 1800 (OS X scales to lower resolutions so you can actually see what you're doing).

The 5K iMac is the second Mac model to get the Retina display treatment. This premium 27-inch iMac model gets a screen with 5120 x 2880 resolution — higher even than the brilliant 4K televisions now gracing the media centers of well-heeled consumers. That display has a PPI measurement of 218.

The new MacBook, meanwhile, comes with a 12-inch display, with 2304 x 1440 physical resolution. It supports a scaled resolution as high as 1440 x 900, higher than the old standard-resolution MacBook Pro, but not quite as high as the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, which maxes out at 1680 x 1050. The MacBook's Retina display sports an actual PPI measurement of 226, just a single pixel per inch lower than the 13-inch Retina display.

How good is the MacBook display?

The MacBook's display is going to be just as sharp and clear as the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. It's a physically smaller display, however — it measures an inch smaller than the rMBP.

Apple's also set up OS X to scale the graphics on the MacBook a little differently. Not only is the screen smaller, but it will scale fewer pixels than the Retina MacBook Pro, so you won't see as much text or graphics on the screen.

Apple's optimized the Retina display on the MacBook to look the best for the most people. And it's gorgeous. Don't take our word for it, though: On April 10th, go to your local Apple Store and take a look.

Have any questions about the new MacBook, or Retina displays? Let me know!

13 Comments
  • I am very under-impressed with retina displays in general. They are mostly hype IMO, (and yes I have excellent eyesight and do a lot of graphic work on my computers).
  • What would make it better for you; how you you like to see it improved? Sent from the iMore App
  • You are so perfect?? Sent from the iMore App
  • 5k iMac is hobbled by its underpowered GPU (IMO. I don't own one, I played with one at the Mac store; slow)
    I hope this little MB doesn't suffer as much of a performance hit bc of Retina. Sent from the iMore App
  • I use one currently for video editing and general use and yes it is slow. Even not counting video editing performance -which I would never count against an iMac because well... it's an iMac and not meant to be a powerhouse editor- it's still quite slow when having several tabs open in Safari and other tasks going (not intensive tasks like video editing just normal every day things ie. Finder windows). Have some Safari, and Finder, and maybe iPhoto 0r the new Photos app then try doing Expose or anything graphical and there are hiccups. Don't get me started on gaming...
  • That's disappointing. I played around with one in an Apple Store, absolutely gorgeous display.
  • Yeah. Using a mobile GPU in a desktop computer made no sense. Sent from my Galaxy S4 running SlimLP 5.0.2
  • Who makes such a stunning display and marries it (shotgun style) to such a mediocre cpu? At $2,500 no less! To top it off, it can't be used as a monitor. Ridiculous!
  • Considering Dell sells their 5K display only at the same price, I don't find it that ridiculous
  • And if the 5K iMac could be used as a monitor, you would be right. It's married to the computer within. The Dell can be used on any computer, thus it will not be obsoleted as readily.
  • Honestly, video power seems to always be Apple's weakness. Part of it comes from a clash of aesthetics vs. thermals, with aesthetics winning. Apple puts beautiful screens on their devices, but then hobbles their systems with underpowered video cards. Sent from the iMore App
  • I wanted to know more about the CPU and GPU performance. Is the GPU efficient enough to push so many pixels in this machine? Because sluggish and laggy UI is the last thing I want. About the sound quality. This thing has got an exterior speaker grill. This should mean better sound quality compared to Air or the 13" Pro. Isn't it? Would the CPU be efficient enough to do Xcode projects. I'll be compiling a lot of source code. Linking (pulling all the source files together) shouldn't be a problem because of super fast PCIe flash storage . Even running a generated binary/executable shouldn't be a problem (loading from flash storage into memory). Besides all the restricted window management because of screen real estate, would this laptop make a developer machine?( I understand that laptops aren't ideal for development or software engineering work but that's besides the point.) The read/write throughput for the flash storage in this laptop should be better than its siblings. Isn't it.
  • Peter, I was hoping for more of a comparison, like color accuracy, viewing angles, response times, and other such factors. Will you be doing an article like that? Sent from the iMore App